'Stand-ups could give lessons in motivation. They take the knocks but still come back'

Maria Kempinska and her husband, John Davy, founded Jongleurs in 1983. In July this year they sold all eight comedy venues for £7m but kept the Jongleurs brand name. This month they launched KDR, a TV production company
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The Independent Online

1Why have you decided to launch a London Comedy Festival in May 2001?

1Why have you decided to launch a London Comedy Festival in May 2001?

I've always considered London to be a centre for comedy yet it's never had a festival to embrace it. May is perfect because there are no other festivals that month and we thought it would cheer everyone up in time for summer.

We want everyone to get involved, not just performers, so we'll be giving awards to the funniest teacher, taxi-driver and the company which is the most fun.

2What was the first lesson you learnt in business?

Not to rely on one act and to make the name Jongleurs more relevant than the performers.

3What single event or person gave you the impetus to succeed?

A lady I knew borrowed some money from the bank to make a record but instead of being thrown into prison when she couldn't pay it back, the bank let her pay £5 a week over a long period. It made me realise I could borrow money to start a business and not have to pay it back in one lump. Knowing this encouraged me not to be afraid about losing money because with any business you've got to be prepared for Armageddon.

4You've just sold your clubs to Regent Inns, why didn't you float Jongleurs in order to raise capital?

Because I knew we wouldn't be in charge any more and that we'd have shareholders on our backs telling us to cut back on this and that. I was afraid the quality would go down if we took that route. We've only sold the real estate and kept the intellectual property, which means we still own the name Jongleurs and still have control over the acts.

5What were the best and worst investments you've ever made?

One of the best was to buy a share in the bricks and mortar of our first club in Battersea. We'd started out renting the upstairs from Regent Inns, then after seven years we were doing so well we offered to buy half the freehold. They then asked us to buy into Camden, and it just went on from there. The worst investment was starting a clothes shop in the early Nineties that went down the pan. I didn't lose a phenomenal amount but it was enough to hurt. The good thing was that I learnt a lot about the fashion business and the way big brands supply their clothes. They make you buy the whole story or nothing at all, which means as well as buying the skirts you have to buy the trousers and blouses, even though you know they won't sell.

6If you didn't run Jongleurs, what would you rather be doing?

I'd love to be Kofi Annan's assistant at the UN because the UN can do so much good in the world.

7 How has stand-up comedy changed in the past decade?

The most noticeable change has been the audience. They've gone from being very politically aware, to it all going over their heads. In the early days the audiences were predominately advertising people, journalists and people who were aware of the arts and what was happening around the world. Comedians would stand up and make a political statement, whereas once we got to the Nineties, being funny every fifth line wasn't good enough - they had to be funny all the time. The performers started getting more laddish and open and honest and we stopped all the poets and rappers because people stopped being interested in what they had to say. When we opened I used to take buskers off the street if I thought they were good and give them a 10-minute slot, whereas these days the audience wants slicker performances. It's gone from being purely theatre to a cross between theatre and entertainment.

8Who do you most admire in the business?

Ben Elton and Rory Bremner because they always give 100 per cent and do everything possible to get their job right. They never say, "Oh I can't be bothered tonight", like you get with the conveyer-belt performer. I admire the ones that are still enthusiastic even after they've achieved their goal. Sean Meo is another performer who is consistently funny and constantly writing new material. If there is anybody we should look to for motivation it's the performer. They stand up on stage and take the knocks yet they still come back over and over again.

9What type of businesses benefit from the Corporate Comedy School?

Every type. We've had management consultants, advertising executives, insurance brokers and they've all given us tremendous feedback. It's a very intensive course, which looks to conquer people's fear of standing in front of an audience. By the end of the day everyone gets to do a five-minute performance, which they've written themselves. Humour cuts through any form of hierarchy because you can be funny whatever level you're at. Making people laugh is a great way of getting them to relax.

10Which single task do you hate doing the most?

I hate packing my bags in a supermarket after I've loaded the trolley and unpacked the trolley, then unpacking them again when I get home. It's such a waste of time.

11What was the happiest day of your working life and the most miserable?

I've had so many good days in business that I couldn't name just one. For me it's opening a new venue, or getting a fantastic review, or seeing people weep with laughter during one of our performances.

The most awful day was in 1998 when our main act didn't turn up. It was the first time it had happened in 17 years and I was utterly mortified. There had been a terrible mix-up with dates, or something had happened to the performer's car, but whatever it was, he couldn't get to the venue in time and we had to give 400 people free tickets. The whole thing was a complete nightmare.

12What's your greatest personal indulgence?

Self-development. I buy loads of tapes on how to improve myself - anything from communication skills to thinking more clearly.

13Are you easy to work for and what makes you lose your temper?

I'm not easy to work for when people don't ask questions because I don't like spending my time guessing what others are thinking. The things that make me most angry are inefficiency and carelessness. I don't shout and swear, I just get very abrupt and say: "Come on. Do it now." I won't suffer people who can't be bothered and I put great demands on quality.

14Why do you think there are still so few female entrepreneurs?

I think it's difficult for women to juggle everything, particularly if they have children. There are more women in business now than ever before yet when I look around there are fewer facilities for them. The majority of meeting places, like informal clubs, are male-orientated and designed for men. The comedy circuit was very male orientated up until a few years ago. In fact last year was the first year we had an award for the best female stand-up.

15In terms of personal wealth how much do you consider to be enough?

Enough to share around and not to have to worry about my pension. I don't want to be dumped in a home if I become a burden on the world, I want to have put enough aside so I can live on a beach somewhere hot and be barmy without anyone taking any notice.

16Where is your favourite place on earth?

In front of the log fire at home in London.

17Are you pro-Europe and the single currency?

I never believe in jumping into any association until you've seen the benefits. I like the idea of opening comedy clubs in Europe but not the idea of us joining forces with Europe. My parents came here from Eastern Europe just after the war so they'd seen what was happening with the Nazis and with communism.

In England we've been lucky that our society is more moderate and balanced and democratic. It's taken us centuries to work that through and I don't think we should give it up too quickly.

18Where do you want to be five years from now?

I'd like to be quite big in television and making films. I'd also like to expand the world of comedy in publishing and training.

19What's the funniest joke that you've heard this week?

It's the one about three Jewish mothers talking about their sons. The first mother says: "My son is so generous, he always remembers my birthday and takes me out to dinner once a week." The second mothers says: "My son is so good, he takes me on holidays and buys me jewellery." The third mother says: "My son is even better, he sees a psychiatrist three times a week and all he talks about is me."

20If you went bankrupt tomorrow would you start again?

I'd be mortified for a bit, then I'd make something else happen and make it better.

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